Monday, June 20, 2016

Glyn Moody on Open Access

At Ars Technica, Glyn Moody writes Open access: All human knowledge is there—so why can’t everybody access it? , a long (9 "page") piece examining this question:
What's stopping us? That's the central question that the "open access" movement has been asking, and trying to answer, for the last two decades. Although tremendous progress has been made, with more knowledge freely available now than ever before, there are signs that open access is at a critical point in its development, which could determine whether it will ever succeed
It is a really impressive, accurate, detailed and well-linked history of how we got into the mess we're in, and a must-read despite the length. Below the fold, a couple of comments.

Moody writes:
In addition, academics are often asked to work on editorial boards of academic journals, helping to set the overall objectives, and to deal with any issues that arise requiring their specialised knowledge. ... these activities require both time and rare skills, and academics generally receive no remuneration for supplying them.
The skewed nature of power in this industry is demonstrated by the fact that the scientific publishing divisions of leading players like Elsevier and Springer consistently achieve profit margins between 30 percent and 40 percent—levels that are rare in any other industry. The sums involved are large: annual revenues generated from English-language scientific, technical, and medical journal publishing worldwide were about $9.4bn (£6.4bn) in 2011.
This understates the problem. It is rumored that the internal margins on many journals at the big publishers are around 90%, and that the biggest cost for these journals is the care and feeding of the editorial board. Co-opting senior researchers onto editorial boards that provide boondoggles is a way of aligning their interests with those of the publisher. This matters because senior researchers do not pay for the journals, but in effect control the resource allocation decisions of University librarians, who are the publisher's actual customers. The Library Loon understands the importance of this:
The key aspect of Elsevier’s business model that it will do its level best to retain in any acquisitions or service launches is the disconnect between service users and service purchasers.
Moody does understand the economic problems of hybrid journals:
the Council of the European Union has just issued a call for full open access to scientific research by 2020. In its statement it "welcomes open access to scientific publications as the option by default for publishing the results of publicly funded [EU] research," but also says this move should "be based on common principles such as transparency, research integrity, sustainability, fair pricing and economic viability." Although potentially a big win for open access in the EU, the risk is this might simply lead to more use of the costly hybrid open access, as has happened in the UK.
but doesn't note the degraded form of open access they provide. Articles can be "free to read" while being protected by "registration required", restrictive copyright licenses, and robots.txt. Even if gold open access eventually became the norm, the record of science leading up to that point would still be behind a paywall.

Compliance with open access mandates has been poor, for example the Wellcome Trust reported that:
Elsevier and Wiley have been singled out as regularly failing to put papers in the right open access repository and properly attribute them with a creative commons licence.
This was a particular problem with so-called hybrid journals, which contain a mixture of open access and subscription-based articles.
More than half of articles published in Wiley hybrid journals were found to be “non-compliant” with depositing and licensing requirements, an analysis of 2014-15 papers funded by Wellcome and five other medical research bodies found.
For Elsevier the non-compliance figure was 31 per cent for hybrid journals and 26 per cent for full open access.
An entire organization called CHORUS has had to be set up to monitor compliance, especially with the US OSTP mandate. Note that it is paid for and controlled by the publishers, kind of like the fox guarding the hen-house.


  1. The Norwegian guidelines for open access have just been published. They include additional incentives in their research evaluation for open access publishing. Only articles deposited in suitable repositories will count for evaluation.

  2. Moody also wrote, near the end: "As the price of storage continues to fall, and capacities increase, in the not-too-distant future it will be possible for most people to have a local copy of every academic paper ever written if they wish to."

    I suspect you may disagree with this view of Kryder's law.

  3. You're right. A reasonable estimate of the size of "every academic paper ever written" is 80-100TB, now growing at ~10TB/yr. If the Kryder rate is <20%/yr going forward, the growth is 10%/yr, and the gap between the local storage that most people have <O(10TB) and what they'd need O(100TB) is an order of magnitude, its going to be a fairly distant future.

    Let alone the difficulty of persuading the copyright owners to agree to let it happen.